03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Growing Evidence of Oil's Environmental Impact

On these pages and in numerous meetings and hearings before Congress and the EPA, I have routinely criticized the EPA, the state of California, and others in the environmental community for failing to create a level playing field when it comes to accounting of carbon emissions from biofuels and petroleum. Specifically, I have argued, based on the facts available, that biofuels are unfairly penalized for perceived future indirect carbon emissions from indirect land use change while petroleum gets a free pass -- especially where marginal sources of petroleum, like Canadian tar sands, are concerned.

But you don't have to take my word for it.

Global Forest Watch Canada has calculated the expected direct and indirect land use impacts from the development of tar sands petroleum in Canada. The group estimates that the land area that will be disrupted as a result of tar sands extraction would be "1,613,887 [hectares] of natural ecosystems (20 times the size of the City of Calgary, 40 times the size of the City of Denver, 17 times the size of East/West Berlin) that are or will potentially be changed by bitumen surface mining and in situ operations."

Such a land area is approximately 4 million acres, or roughly the same amount of new land EPA estimates must be found to meet the requirements of the expanded Renewable Fuels Standard for grain-based ethanol. (It goes without saying i believe, along with a number of experts, that EPA is grossly overestimating this number given improvements in crop yields, ethanol efficiencies, and on farm practices).

Traditional sources of petroleum are not immune to serious environmental impacts. A report from the federal Minerals Management Service shed some light on the detrimental environmental impact oil development, processing, and shipping has had on the Gulf Coast region. In particular, it details the destruction of coastal wetlands critical for a number of reasons, including mitigating the impacts of hurricanes.

This past summer, the Renewable Fuels Association depicted the impacts of petroleum on the environment in a slideshow. Now, someone with true artistic talent has given the issue the exposure it deserves. Currently on display at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC, photographer Edward Burtynsky takes a look deep into the oil industry and the environmental costs associated with our addiction.

It tells a story that only pictures can, and calls into questions statements that only biofuels present significant direct and indirect emissions of carbon.

All of this is meant to underscore how unstable the foundation EPA, the state of California, and others are using when applying unproven theories such as indirect land use change. It is inconceivable that an honest and transparent accounting of the carbon emissions of petroleum when compared to those of ethanol would somehow be lower. It defies logic, reason, and most of all, facts.